We started the movie. Everyone huddled around the projector, sprawling out on top of blankets placed on my wooden floor, cramming into a very ugly but large chair with a comfy ottoman. I was sitting with my back against the fireplace that served only an ornamental function and Laura was sitting beside me. When the movie started, she pulled out a small ziplock baggie that contained three enormous joints. Laura explained they were called ‘cones’ because of their conical shape. I had already drank half of a bottle of a West Virginian wine. Laura lit some of the cone and began to pass it around the half circle the group made to watch the movie. I took a big rip off of the cone when it was my turn and I instantly regretted it, wishing I had drank more wine instead.
I returned to quietly watch the film, it was near the beginning still, when Michelangelo is reciting The Inferno while lying in a bed. My head started to sway back and forth a little and it was like my head disconnected from my body, half-floating-half-sinking in water. I thought about The Inferno, the sign at the entrance of Hell, “Abandon all Hope Ye Who Enter.” I realized Michelangelo understood the redemptive nature of art; he was compelled to create. He glimpsed the depths of the Inferno, saw that one must bear witness to the full breadth of sin in order to understand grace. Dante and Virgil remained steadfast during their descent, they tunneled through fear and clung to each other. Michelangelo clung to Dante, but who could I cling too? Hell is not just underground, but it saturates the world of people, alongside beauty. Michelangelo synthesized these opposites through creation, by following his heart. I felt resolved. I too, could create something, follow my heart. I just needed to listen.
My pulse started racing as my swaying became a little more exaggerated and uncontrollable. I ran upstairs up to the bathroom and vomited a good portion of the wine, the water, and an apple I ate earlier. My heart was hammering away, the only noise I could hear other than the little jingle of fumbling around with the metal toilet handle. I sat there, hugging the toilet and listening to my heart. I couldn’t stand because of the spins, so I crawled and threw myself over into my bathtub and pulled the shower curtain shut, this felt a little more respectful and secure.
I sat up and Dylan Thomas came to mind, how he was a brilliant drunkard and how he always went a little too far, looking for something at the end of the night. I thought of his line, “Light breaks where no sun shines; where no sea runs, the waters of the heart push in their tides.” I can’t remember the whole poem, but nevertheless this line felt true and meaningful while I was in a Dylan Thomas-like state in my bathtub.
Time passed, going further, further away as I sank into the safety of my bathtub. There was a knock at the door and before I could answer, someone came in and used the bathroom. I became statue-like behind the shower curtain, holding my breath. I heard a strong stream of urine smacking the toilet water, a flush, and a burp. Then the person, relieved, went downstairs. I got up and splashed some water on my face and rinsed my mouth. I decided it was time to rejoin the others, I felt better anyways. I poured myself a glass of water and I heard a small voice behind me and felt some pokes in my side, “Where. have. you. been?” The pokes punctuated each word. I turned around and it was Laura. I grimaced and told her I felt a little overwhelmed by the movie, the cone, and the wine.
I grabbed her arm and we got our seats back. I made a half bow to announce myself to everyone. The slab of marble was being pulled down a steep hillside by a legion of men operating a complex series of ropes and pulleys that Michelangelo designed himself. I was extremely focused on the sounds, the rope stretching and fraying, the breathing of the men, and my ceiling fan in the background. A man crawled under the piece of marble to oil one of the pulley gears, there was a crack—a gear gave out and the rope snapped out of system—pinning the man’s upper body underneath the car-sized block of marble. Laura gasped. The helpless man screamed into the earth the marble was pressing him into, until everything went flat—the man’s screams and Laura’s gasp. I sighed and the scene cut and I decided to go outside and smoke.
Everyone else must have been a little emotionally strung out because I noticed the other smokers trickled out to follow me and when I peeked through the window I saw the movie was paused and the psy-trance visuals resumed in the adjacent tab on my internet browser. I put out my cigarette on the sole of my shoe.
We joined the rest of the people, I noticed there were seven of us in the kitchen. We were forming a a half circle around Bill, who was unwrapping the neatly folded gum-wrapper that housed LSD. He spread the tabs onto the table and said, “Who wants to get into the soup?” What he meant was the soup-like thickening and expansion of reality that happens on a ‘trip.’ The sliding away of time and the super-imposition of a weirder, more estranged reality that was typically helpful.
No one wanted to go into the soup except myself, Bill, and Gus. The little, harmless-seeming white tab confronted the people at my house with the limit to their reality, the boundary of their ‘map,’ a doorway that my new friends turned away from. Uncomfortable and confused, they left.
I was now alone with Bill and Gus, watching Michelangelo struggle while we settled into the onset of our trip. Luckily, Sophia came over to watch over us and make sure we didn’t do anything dangerous. When I saw her I wasn’t quite in the soup yet, so I hugged her and asked her to take detailed notes on everything that happened if she felt like it. The atmosphere was light, not too dense and inexplicable yet.
I went to grab my copy of the I Ching. I suggested we do a “reading” before the soup was too thick. It was like asking for a blessing. Bill and Gus were looking at the ground, not really showing much emotion. So, I grabbed the coins I used to throw and put them into Bill’s hand. I gave Gus a drawing pad to record the lines. I said to them, “In this moment, thank you for being with me,” and I smiled.
We each contributed two lines to the hexagram. As a collective, we threw Innocence. I read the judgement aloud,
“Man has received from heaven a nature innately good, to guide him in all his movements. By devotion to this divine spirit within himself, he attains an unsullied innocence. He who departs from innocence, what does he come to? Heaven's will and blessing do not go with his deeds. We cannot lose what really belongs to us, even if we throw it away. Therefore we need have no anxiety. All that need concern us is that we should remain true to our own natures and not listen to others.”
We had moved closer together during the reading, sitting in a triangle while cross-legged on the ground. The reading was a good, encouraging omen, that we were on the cusp of something, a probing of the interior. I suggested that we pray together by humming a note, to knit us together sonically. I began humming a note; Bill and Gus harmonized with me. We leaned in towards the center of our triangle, putting our heads together, continuing to harmonize. It was a mysterious aspect of human experience, to resonate with other souls; to transmit and receive the obscure music. It was unclear what we were getting at, but this experience knotted our minds together, deceiving us into thinking we had created an over-mind. Encouraged, we stopped; wanting to go further, we got into staring contests that annihilated the harmony we had just worked to create. Taking turns staring into one another’s eyes, I became frightened and I turned away. I think the others felt the same. Looking into their dilated eyes, I felt I was falling deeper and deeper into a hole, that frightening abyss of another that can be glimpsed for a moment, then vanishes.
The mental effort taxed us, so we took a break from each other, Bill gently strumming a guitar and Gus with the drawing pad. I was supine on the ground and I turned my head to look at Sophia. She smiled at me, and as I watched her lips upturn, one half of her face shattered into little pieces, evaporated, and was outmoded by a new half that was mismatched to the normal half of her face. The new face was just like her old one, but was now startlingly asymmetrical, in a way that made me turn away from Sophia. I turned back to look at her, and her face was intact, so I went to sit beside her, to peek at her notes. She kissed me on the cheek and I saw, “Roland’s not here right now, he’s gone.” I smiled, I didn’t know what she meant. Maybe a small part of me is gone, I thought, but it’s simply in remission, which is good. This was important to facilitate change, to encourage new ideas, thought patterns—to give the ego a little thrashing. I was not in the soup because I thought the patterns looked ‘trippy’ or ‘cool.’ It was because change and liberation are not one-dimensional sedentary processes. They are cyclical, fractal events where forms are thrown to the wind, interacting, gauging their compatibility with each other. Myself and most of nature went through a series of additions and regressions, and consistently transcended ourselves. Right then, there was an augmentation occurring to the Self, I again, was on one of the many frontiers of reality, downloading an experience that made me question everything I knew. Reality was no longer bland, it was injected with the mystery latent in the ceiling I was transfixed on and the drywall above me that was churning to a steady, unpredictable rhythm.
It seemed Gus and Bill were ‘gone’ too. From the floor, I heard Bill mention that Dante beckoned us. Together, we watched the last scene of the movie where Dante stands over Michelangelo and imparts his message: listen. Events in the past are still laced with their emotional intensity, able to transmit their themes in a direct way, as long as they remain in cultural consciousness. Dante, the Inferno, Michelangelo, the director, and the I Ching…they were all collaborating to transmit this critical message to me, to listen.
I looked at my phone to check the time, but when I looked at it and saw the letter and numbers 1:03 AM, my mind forgot how to process what those meant, so I set my phone next to Sophia, who had nodded off by this point. Bill, Gus, and I went unto the front porch to share a cigarette and try to talk to one another, but we couldn’t really manage to get many words out at first, we could only grin enthusiastically towards one another. Gus broke the silence and said, “We should go on a pilgrimage.” We nodded at each other, and I said, “Where?” No one knew ‘where.’ Simply, we should leave. So, I grabbed my key and we began walking down the hill that my house was positioned on. Walking near downtown, Gus became our leader and guide. He took us through a small tree grove hidden behind some apartment buildings. We sat there, against the tree for a moment, resting. Gus was leading us across town toward his apartment. Hurriedly, we walked to Gus’s. There was a party going on there, thrown by his other roommates. We made straight for the back porch where Ramirez, a dharma-bum, was shirtless in white leather pants trying with all his might to climb the tree in Gus’s backyard. I was not surprised to see him. It seemed insane to exert so much effort into climbing a tree, especially one that offered no benefits in its canopy. I sat crosslegged and withdrew from the group. I was tired of watching Ramirez and I was the only one still in the ‘soup,’ it seemed. I felt that I was going to be eternally in this current, and it began to scare me a little. After eating some of Gus’s trail mix, I went to Gus and told him I thought that I’d better go, “Another pilgrimage for me friend. Whatever this is, it isn’t it.”
Gus smiled and said, “Of course, good luck friend.”
When I stood at the stop sign at the end of the street, it began to rain, giving a heaviness to all of it, everything I had experienced so far in this night, a natural checkpoint on the journey, signifying another twist or rather another circle I was entering.
It was late, around three in the morning, as I walked home alone. The rain made all of the mud, sweat, and cigarette smoke seep into my skin, giving me this awful stench that was making me nauseous. The city was so lonely, I kept thinking, “desolation, desolation, desolation,” as I walked by a house that had broken glass littered all throughout its lawn, creeping onto the sidewalk that I was using to pass by the house. I felt like the last remaining soul still looking for something. I was approaching the police station, and all of the police cars seemed to pull out into the road at once. At least ten of them did, patrolling I guess. I felt that I looked suspicious, the only soul still walking; that my wandering implied some type of guilt, and I began to feel a creeping paranoia. It was imperative to get home to my safe little island. As I turned the corner to get onto the bridge that reached my neighborhood, began to sprint across the bridge, passing another person while I ran. I ran up the hill until I reached my house. I burst through my front door and woke up Sophia, who gave me this wild look that I couldn’t understand and she said, “You just left, left your phone…how was I supposed to know what happened to you?”
I didn’t say anything but went instead to look myself in the mirror and saw that my eyes were still dilated and I was breathing heavily, recovering from the long run. I just kept looking at myself in the mirror, looking for an old me, some version of myself that I could cling to, but it was still gone, burning somewhere. The skin on my face was clinging to the bone, sinking further and further the longer I looked at myself. My ghastly appearance convinced me that I really was a lost soul, some type of ghoul waiting to croak. I was reminded again of the stench as it wafted up into my nose and Sophia said she was going upstairs to go to sleep. I walked upstairs to get in the shower. I looked into the mirror again, this time longer. Again, my face kept sinking into itself, the skin looking old and ragged. I was fucked-seeming.
I got in the shower, poured soap onto my loofa and scrubbed, trying to scrub myself back into my youth, back toward safety, but it wasn’t working. I rinsed off and began walking toward my room, but I thought I would give it another go. I got back into the shower and began to scrub, with renewed vigor and this seemed to work a little bit better. After the second shower I looked exceedingly fleshy, emanating a pinkish color that I found a little repulsive. I tried to crawl into the bed with Sophia and get to sleep, but I was still sweating profusely. There was still a fear gripping my heart, a fear of the night and its strangeness, the same fear as when I watched my face decompose in the mirror, a fear that made me realize that the night wasn’t over.
So, I got out of bed and put some clothes on to go downstairs and made a cup of tea. I decided that I would just wait for the sunrise; it wasn’t too long now anyways. Nothing felt more important. It was the last thing I needed to do before I could rest, so I sat on my front porch and waited. I thought of Michelangelo and Dante again. At the climax of the film, Michelangelo is hiking a mountainside, alone, following a vision of Dante. Michelangelo asks his mentor, “Why all of this suffering?” Where Dante replies with one word, “Listen.” With that the phantasm disappears, revealing the beautiful mountain with the wind howling and the clouds traversing the camera. Dante suggests a willingness to accept the world in its all of its complexity. I sat on my bench and watched the first few light beams reach the pavement, announcing dawn. From the thin air of the heights with exposed edges; to blood soaked rooms marked by betrayal; but also the grace and perfection of a gentle hand, there is always a possibility of transformation. As the sun came up over the hill, over the rooftops, I felt all of my doubts annihilated, all of the fear, the wandering, absolved by the sunlight.